OH, MY," said the statuesque woman with the thick Dominican accent, gesturing toward the dreadlocked football star across the dinner table. "It seems like everywhere he goes, people want a piece of him." He was Edgerrin James, the Indianapolis Colts' All-Pro running back, and the people were, for the most part, some of the New South's finest single women. And on a recent sultry Friday night, in a packed Atlanta restaurant, James was a man in demand. � If only things were going that way for him in the NFL. James, who has been seeking a lucrative, long-term deal since February, sipped his virgin strawberry daiquiri and cringed at the comparison. Coming off a season in which he rushed for 1,548 yards, led the AFC with 2,031 yards from scrimmage and helped the Colts win the AFC South, James, whose contract expired after 2004, sought the same type of deal that the team had given quarterback Peyton Manning in March 2004 and wideout Marvin Harrison last December. Instead the Colts balked, using the franchise-player tag to retain James for 2005, but gave him permission to try to arrange a potential trade. Five months later, with Indy players due to report to training camp this week, James still pines for action like a date seeker who's been ignored on match.com.
"The whole thing is crazy," James says. "It's like everybody around the league is sending out this lie that you can win without a big-time running back, or that we're easily replaceable. I look at what I did last year--and all that I've done in the league--and think, What more can I do? It's a bunch of b-------."
James isn't the NFL's only rebuffed runner. Another Pro Bowl back, the Seattle Seahawks' Shaun Alexander, was tagged a franchise player and shopped after a 1,696-yard rushing season. Meanwhile Travis Henry, a former Pro Bowl back with the Buffalo Bills who lost his job to Willis McGahee last October after having rushed for 2,794 yards over the previous two years, spent most of the off-season in limbo before the Tennessee Titans acquired him on July 18 for a 2006 third-round draft pick.
Since unfettered free agency began in 1993, there hasn't been a worse time to be a big-time ballcarrier. "Not a lot of teams need running backs right now," Houston Texans general manager Charley Casserly says, "and there's a belief that you can win without a Pro Bowl back and invest your [salary-]cap dollars elsewhere. An accumulation of good young runners has put guys like Edgerrin James and Shaun Alexander on an island."
Granted, it's more Fantasy Island than Survivor-- James, for example, stands to collect a one-year tender of nearly $8.1 million in 2005, and he'll get another $1 million if he rushes for 1,400 or more yards. His agent, Drew Rosenhaus, points out that even if James doesn't get the incentive, he will be the "highest-paid running back in NFL history for a season, so please don't cry for him." James plans to report to camp, though he doesn't expect to make the trip to Japan for the Aug. 6 preseason game against the Atlanta Falcons. "The closest I'm going to get to Tokyo," James insists, "is Benihana."
Alexander, due a one-year tender of $6.32 million, most likely will not report to camp, though the sides have reopened talks on a long-term deal; in early July he told The Seattle Times that returning to the Seahawks under those terms is "out of the question." Henry got a restructured contract in the wake of his trade to the Titans, calling the chance to return to the state where he starred in college (at Tennessee) "a dream come true." However, before the deal Henry said, "It's been really interesting, with the caliber of running backs that are available, that teams aren't jumping to snap us up. It's a cutthroat business, man. Every time we carry the ball, we've got 11 guys trying to get us, and even if we prove ourselves, teams still treat us as if we can be easily replaced."
Whether this is the start of a troubling trend for premier backs remains to be seen. An executive for one NFL team, citing James (six NFL seasons) and Alexander (five), says there is "no proven track record that guys with that type of tread are ever worth the big dollars. Remember, the signing bonus in a new long-term contract [essentially] means you own him for at least three years."
Here are the reasons why James and Alexander find themselves in this jam:
? The New Kid in Town Factor. Though predicting NFL success at running back is a tricky proposition, coaches and talent evaluators often become starry-eyed when scouting young ballcarriers--and never more so than last spring. For the first time three backs were among the top five selections in the draft: Auburn teammates Ronnie Brown (No. 2, Miami Dolphins) and Cadillac Williams (No. 5, Tampa Bay Buccaneers), and Texas's Cedric Benson (No. 4, Chicago Bears). The Arizona Cardinals (Cal's J.J. Arrington) and the Carolina Panthers ( Louisville's Eric Shelton) used second-round picks on potential impact runners.
? The Mike Shanahan Factor. Since a series of injuries beginning in 1999 derailed the career of All-Pro back Terrell Davis, Shanahan, the Denver Broncos' coach, has plugged numerous rushers into his lineup with great success. He has traded the last two of the four 1,000-yard rushers from that group, Clinton Portis (to the Washington Redskins) and Reuben Droughns ( Cleveland Browns), largely because of his belief that many backs can succeed in his system. " Denver ruined it for Edgerrin and those other guys," says Bears defensive end Adewale Ogunleye. "They got everyone else believing it was the system, that backs are interchangeable. That's crazy, but a lot of teams are thinking that way now."